First Review – Enemies of Science

Last year I promised to review The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science on this blog. I actually wrote half a review but never finished it. I don’t have experience writing reviews, but I think this is also a hard one to start off with. It tackles a hugely important subject – arguably the most important subject in the world today – and there is much to like about the way it goes about it. Nevertheless, I found it ultimately frustrating.

However, I am about to be much busier and if I am ever going to get the review posted it had better be now.

storrAs regular readers will know, I’m fascinated (some would say obsessed) with the topic of science’s enemies. So I was very interested when I heard about Will Storr’s book on the topic. We were offered a review copy at Australasian Science. I explained that AS doesn’t do reviews, but if they sent me a copy I’d review it here, noting the audience would probably be tiny. They sent me a copy anyway.

It’s a very interesting, if at times frustrating, book. It also has one serious error, which I feel the need to mention.

Storr certainly writes well, and he’s quite courageous in his ability to brave people who are often barking mad in their homes and workplaces, first giving them a chance to speak their mind, then confronting them with rather disconcerting facts. At least facts that should be disconcerting, but seldom seem to be to the people he is talking to. He even goes on a tour of Holocaust sites with David Irving and a band of deniers, some of whom might actually have killed him if they had known who he was.

Other aspects to praise are the way Storr links together various anti-science cults, from creationists and global warming deniers to people who believe meditation can cure any disease (except AIDS apparently) and UFOlogists. He doesn’t pretend these are the same thing, and in some cases acknowledges the evidence is not cut and dried, while in others in pretty much is. There’s a particularly good chapter where he interviews Lord Monkton, and largely lets some of his lesser known, and particular crazy, ideas discredit the ones his supporters prefer to trumpet.

Storr is also interesting on himself. He doesn’t pretend to be objective, and talks fairly candidly about his own history of mental illness and the often irrational ways he has taken sides in debates in the past. In some cases he reveals that he aligned himself with the scientific side of a debate having completely misunderstood the science – for example thinking creationists were wrong, but basing his conclusions on a complete misunderstanding of how evolution actually works. He is also ruthless in exposing the way even those seen as staunch defenders of science, such as James Randi, sometimes turn to the sort of behaviours they despise in others when something challenges their worldview

The frustrating aspects come in two forms. The one is that Storr sometimes misses golden opportunities to put the people he is meeting on the spot. For example, when interviewing creationist John Mackay he wields a series of claims that were never really like to challenge Mackay. What I wanted him to do was try out something along the lines of the “Why Can’t I own Canadians” letter that has become very popular among liberals online, and received a marvelous (although abridged) outing on The West Wing. I’ve always wondered how a leading advocate of biblical literalism would respond when confronted with examples of biblical injunctions they cannot possibly defend. If the Bible is not inerrant morally it is hard to see how it could be inerrant scientifically. Storr fluffs the chance.

Likewise, in bringing out the evidence for the fundamentally irrational nature of much of our decision making process Storr gives the impression – one provided all too often – that all our decisions are irrational. But this clearly isn’t true. Most of us at one point believed in Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy or both. We have fairly powerful incentives to keep on believing in these things and yet, confronted by sufficient evidence and authority we stopped. This happens in smaller ways all the time. Confronted with evidence pretty much everyone eventually adjusts their position on at least some things – those who don’t end up not coping very well with life. Storr partially acknowledges this, but it is certainly not the impression one comes away with from reading the book.

For example, (p. 276) he refers to research purporting to show that intelligence is no defence against irrationality at all. In this study a group of people were asked to produce arguments for and against particular positions. Naturally, everyone could produce more arguments for the side they supported. And intelligent people could produce more on that side than people of lower intelligence. But, Storr says, they could produce no more arguments for the other side than people of lower intelligence.

Now I realise that I am the last person who should be using personal anecdote against peer reviewed research, but bear with me here. My sister, who is on any measure you choose someone of staggering intelligence, had a favourite trick to humiliate me as a child. She would take some deeply held personal belief of mine and throw at me one reason after another as to why I was wrong. I would almost always find myself unable to make a convincing case against her. Sometimes I would stomp away, convinced I was right but knowing that any impartial witness would have sided with her. Other times she would actually change my mind, at which point she would simply turn around and bring out all the arguments for the side I had supported in the first place that I had not been able to think of, leaving me utterly bewildered as to what to think and, as I said, humiliated.

In some cases she might have been able to do this because she didn’t really care, but in most cases she did. She was passionate about many of the same issues I was. This example may be unusual, but it is not unique – I remember reading an account of a someone who did the exact same thing to a put upon sibling in a novel, and presumably the author had encountered such an event in real life, if not been the victim.

Obviously not all even highly intelligent people can do this, but some can. Whereas it is hard to imagine anyone of below average intelligence being able to do the same thing.

In other words, while intelligence may not count for much in the capacity to see both sides of a debate, it counts for something, sometimes.  This seems to be emblematic of the problems with Enemies of Science. Storr is so keen to convince us of the importance of irrational biases that he buries the fact that rationality still matters.

It must, because otherwise we would never progress. Kepler, it is said, adopted the view that the Earth went round the sun for wholly irrational reasons – he saw the sun as symbolic of God and thought the solar system should rotate around it. However, this view did not prevail because more people were born with an inclination to this previously unpopular view. It prevailed because the weight of evidence was sufficient to shift some previous opponents, and everyone entering the discussion without a fixed position. A hundred similar examples could be given.

It is important to acknowledge that none of us are as rational at sifting evidence as we might like to think, but it’s really dangerous to pretend that we are all equally prey to our own prejudices. Even before the development of science as a formal discipline bad ideas were dropped when the evidence against grew too strong. In recent centuries the process has accelerated. Our lives are twice as long, with infinitely more opportunities, because the Enlightenment allowed us to throw off some of the false beliefs that hampered progress. No longer do we blame the woman with too many cats for the fact that our child had grown ill, rather than the bacterial infection that could be cured with a dose of penicillin, nor think that ripping out the heart of our enemy on an altar will bring good rains for the next season.

As a society we have developed because some people, some of the time, abandoned the beliefs they once clung to in the face of evidence. In the meantime millions have died because not enough people did, and the survival of most of the species on Earth, humans perhaps included, depends on more people facing up to the evidence more quickly.

Consequently it is vitally important not only to understand the ways in which people resist evidence, but also what can ultimately bring most of them round. Storr is very good on the first part, terrible on the second.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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